The Middle Cherokee Trading Path, which roughly matched the route of the Old Federal Road existed since the time of James Oglethorpe. In the late 1790's the state of Georgia became interested in upgrading this path for travel through the Cherokee Nation to the Tennessee River. People began to refer to this path as the Georgia Road, a name that would stay with it to present-day. Almost immediately talk began of connecting the road to the Tennessee River with a road that had been proposed in the Treaty of the Holston in 1791 proposing a road from the Mero District (Nashville) to the Washington District (on the Tennessee River).
In 1803 the federal government took an interest in such a road, and Secretary of War Henry Dearborn ordered Cherokee Agent Return J. Meigs to negotiate for the right to build a road through the Cherokee Nation. Although the federal government wanted to retain the ferry earnings and have the Cherokee maintain the road, the Cherokee insisted on the earnings to help pay for the cost of the road. No federal or state money was used in completing the Federal Road in Georgia.
Roads to the west were few and far between, mostly traveling through well-known gaps in the Appalachian Mountain range like the Cumberland Gap. A route from Savannah to Nashville would have to climb fewer mountains, would be more direct and could give Nashville residents a second port for their goods. In 1803 Return J. Meigs agreed in principle with the Cherokee chiefs for a road. The genesis of the Old Federal Road from the Chattahoochee River to Nashville, Tennessee came with the 1805 Treaty of Tellico. Article IV said
The citizens of the United States shall have the free and unmolested use and enjoyment of the ... following described roads, in addition to those which are at present established through their country; one to proceed from some convenient place near the head of Stone's river, and fall into the Georgia road at a suitable place towards the southern frontier of the Cherokees.
Settlers and others who used the Old Federal Road normally joined the route in Athens, Georgia or Jefferson, Georgia. At "Federal Crossing", near present-day Flowery Branch, they left the protection of the federal government, crossing Peachtree Road and entering the Cherokee Nation at Vann's Ferry less than three miles away. Over the next two miles they climbed out of the river valley past James Vann's Chattahoochee Plantation and his tavern adjacent to the road. Seasoned travelers knew this stop well - they could get a grog-like drink from the "walk-up window" on the tavern.
After crossing Two Mile Creek and Six Mile Creek (Four Mile Creek was noteworthy), Coal Mountain was visible in the distance. From Coal Mountain to Frogtown (later Scudders), the road was mostly level. Here it crossed the Etowah River at the Frogtown Ferry. After passing Buffingtons/Blackburns, the road entered the rugged highlands east of Tate, then quickly dropped some 400 feet to Long Swamp Creek.
At Talking Rock the road passed Carmel Mission before heading into the sparsely populated area south of the Coosawattee River. Because of the altitude only small streams needed to be crossed. The road climbed Blalock Mountain and followed it to Coosawattee Old Town, where it crossed Talking Rock Creek multiple times before reaching the Cherokee/Moundbuilder town.
North of Coosawattee the land near the road was more populated. At Ramhurst the Federal Road to Knoxville went north, while the Federal Road to Nashville continued to the northwest towards Spring Place, the home of James Vann. After Vann's house travelers once again entered an area that was only sparsely populated with little in the way of stores or inns until they reached present-day Ringgold, where the road once again entered the mountains.
As the road entered the Tennessee River Valley it began a downhill stretch, passing John Ross's home and continued on to Ross's Landing, at the center of today's Chattanooga. Here travelers crossed the Tennessee River on a ferry before starting the climb up Signal Mountain onto the Cumberland Plateau.
Much Northwest Georgia history from 1800 until 1838 occurred along the Old Federal Road and as such is important to understand the route. Travelers from the east coast of Georgia crossed Peachtree Road at Federal Crossing and headed northwest to the Chattahoochee River. Vann's Ferry carried them across the river to the Cherokee Nation. Vann never actually ran the ferry. He would lease the right to run the ferry to different settlers between 1805 and his death in 1809.
James Vann's son Joe leased the ferry (or, at least, benefited from the annual lease payments) until 1820. That year Richard Winn won the lot on the "south bank" of the Chattahoochee in the Land Lottery of 1820. From this point forward Winn would lease the south bank and Vann the north and the point slowly became known by two names, Winn's Ferry or (Old) Vann's Ferry. Since the Vann's Chattahoochee Plantation was adjacent to the river the ferryman was also granted the right to use the land to raise crops. The ferry would later be known as Williams Ferry.
Settler Jacob Scudder moved near the Cherokee town of Hightower or Frogtown, just east of the Frogtown Ferry. He opened a "house of entertainment" that drew the wrath of the Cherokee and fueled their nationalistic movement in 1823. Cherokee Principal Chief William Hicks decided to tax Scudder $507 for his operation. This led to a ruling by Attorney General William Wirt that the Cherokee did not have the right to tax Scudder. In 1829 the $507 charged to Scudder for running his house of entertainment was taken from the Cherokee annuity and returned to Scudder. When the state of Georgia created Cherokee County from the Cherokee Nation, Scudder was its first senator.
In the 1820's regular stagecoach service was established from Milledgeville to Nickajack, west of Ross's Landing. According to Ariel Sherwood's Gazetteer of 1829 the distances between the stops in the Cherokee Nation were:
Athens to Van's[sic] Ferry 47 miles
Blackburn's on Hightower 20 miles
Harnages on Long Swamp 15 miles
Cowswettee[sic] Town 28 miles
Mrs. Scott's 34 miles
Daniel Ross's 18 miles
Willson's Nickajack 22 miles
In 1836 Henry Fitzsimmons was evicted from a stagecoach traveling the Old Federal Road in Pickens County for imbibing too freely from his jug of locally made moonshine. He wasn't too drunk to recognize a fine marble outcropping along the road however, beginning the marble industry in Georgia.
In the late 1820's and early 1830's, the Old Federal Road became a major route to the gold fields near the Etowah River during the Georgia Gold Rush. Mines dotted the river throughout its entire route south. Franklin Gold Mine, about two miles south of the Old Federal Road in Cherokee County, was one of the most productive in the state. Besides carrying miners to these mines, the road was also used to transport the gold back to the east. The influx of miners brought demands from the government for protection from the Cherokee.
The state responded by organizing the Cherokee Nation into a county in the state of Georgia in 1831. Harnageville was to be the county seat and elections were held at the Harnage Tavern in February, 1832. In 1833 Scudder's was briefly used to hold elections in newly-formed Forsyth County.
Major Ridge and the Treaty Party signed the Treaty of New Echota in December, 1835. Three years later the Georgia Guard and federal troops would use the Old Federal Road and the removal forts to move the remaining members of the Cherokee Nation west on a tragedy known today as the Trail Where They Cried or The Trail of Tears. Cherokee rounded up in the area were the first inhabitants of Forts Scudder, Gilmer, Newnan and Hoskins. As they moved north on Old Federal the Cherokee to the east moved to the empty forts. Slowly the Cherokee moved north to Ross's Landing where other roads took them to Gunter's Landing (Alabama) or Rattlesnake Springs (Tennessee) where they moved west over water land.
By the time the Cherokee we being forced west a railroad that would spell the end to the Federal Road was pushing east from Augusta to the Chattahoochee River. From here, the Western and Atlantic would carry passengers north to Chattanooga, completely replacing the Old Federal Road. By the middle 1850's the road was no longer shown as complete and sections of the road were abandoned. During the Atlanta Campaign portions of the road between Ringgold and Praters Mill were used by Union and Confederate troops. By the early 20th century only a few sections of the road were still being used.
Vann's Tavern - Served alcohol, beds
Scudder's - Originally a "house of entertainment," over the years Scudder added mills, a livery, wool carding, and a general store.
Blackburn/Buffington - More a town than a stop on the Old Federal Road, but the centerpiece tavern was owned by Lewis Blackburn until his death, then by his son-in-law Thomas Buffington. Joshua Buffington also lived in this area, as did George Welch, high-ranking Cherokee who owned a grist mill on Settindown Creek (today's Poole's Mill).
Over the mountains two more taverns/stores offered services to travelers, James Daniel and Ambrose Harnage on either side of Long Swamp Creek. There was a good deal of intermarriage between the Daniel, Blackburn, Scudder, Welch and Buffington families. Harnage, who was a countryman, sold his tavern and moved to Cincinnati, Arkansas, so Georgia could not force his Cherokee wife west on the Trail of Tears.
Charles Nelson, James Simmons, Trippe(?) ran a store north of present-day Jasper
John Bell, John Martin, George Harlan ran stores near Coosawattee, just south of Ramhurst.
James Vann/Joe Vann ran a post office, general store and inn on Spring Place (today the James Vann House).
Richard Taylor ran a story near present-day Ringgold
Daniel and John Ross ran a post office and store in Rossville.
Original location of Vann's Tavern - James Vann's Chattahoochee Plantation was site of the original Vann's Tavern. A settler named William Boyd won the property in the 1832 Georgia Land Lottery and clapboarded the tavern and used it as a home. Georgia historian John Goff visited the home in 1950 to do the preliminary work on moving it to New Echota State Park. He reported that the tavern was on the Old Federal Road near Vann's Ferry. Today it is sometimes reported as being along the road to Oscarville, which did not exist in 1809, when Vann was killed at Blackburn's.
As the road crosses from Cherokee County into Pickens County there is a small discrepancy in the original 1832 survey. That places the Old Federal Road running beneath an early highpoint on the road. Indeed there is an old roadbed visible near Lawson Federal Highway. A later Pickens County map shows the location of the road at the highpoint.
According to the 1832 survey the Old Federal Road crossed Talking Rock Creek several times. John Goff believes the road did not cross Talking Rock Creek. Tanner's 1834 map, which shows Old Federal does not show it crossing Talking Rock Creek.